This week, Health.com published 20 Surprising Ways to Prevent Colds and Flu. These tips came from many different sources but are they any good? How do you know if these tips are worth your energy or a waste of your time? Let’s see if these ways to prevent colds and flu are based on real fact or just fiction.
20 Surprising Ways to Prevent Colds and Flu – Fact or Fiction?
You’ve got to act fast to fight off colds and flu. Case in point: University of Arizona scientists have found that when someone is sick in an office, it takes only four hours (!) for surfaces like coffeepot handles, copy-machine buttons and the fridge door to show traces of infectious virus.
Considering that the 2012 flu season was one of the worst on record, it’s well worth arming yourself against aches, cough, fever and general misery. For reality-tested tips that actually work, we turned to doctors, politicians, makeup artists and other brave souls who are exposed to viruses every day. Steal their strategies to win the war against germs this winter.
Lose the booze
“When I’m on trips, I don’t drink alcohol. It interferes with sleep quality, and I’m much more likely to get sick when I’m sleep-deprived. I’ve also read that nightcaps disrupt REM sleep, which is the most restorative part of sleep.”
—Kim Mazzolini, a flight attendant with Alaska Airlines
FACT: In addition to interfering with restorative sleep, alcohol also depresses your immune system function. This makes you much more susceptible to colds and flu. Definitely skip alcohol when you feel a cold coming on. Read 20 reasons why you should skip the flu shot as well.
“I drink hot black or green tea with lemon and honey. Drinking the tea and breathing in steam stimulates the cilia—the hair follicles in the nose—to move out germs more efficiently. Lemon thins mucus, and honey is antibacterial.”
— Dr. Murray Grossan, ear, nose and throat specialist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in Los Angeles
FACT (mostly): Dr. Murray is correct – mostly. Teas are indeed packed with antioxidants. Choose green tea for even more immune-boosting phytonutrients. Raw, unprocessed honey is antibacterial and a very healthy natural sweetener. However, if your honey comes from a plastic bear-shaped bottle, then unfortunately, the antibacterial properties have been processed out of it.
Lemon provides vitamin C which helps fight colds. It may also thin mucous, however, don’t get caught up in the hype of blaming mucous. Mucous is actually healing! It is antibacterial, antiviral and it helps trap germs before they ever have a chance to get into your system. Definitely avoid mucous thinning drugs.
Get a protein fix
“Research shows that diets that are too low in protein can deplete the immune system. So I make sure to get protein-rich foods throughout the day, especially fish, eggs and yogurt.”
—Douglas Kalman, director of nutrition and applied clinical trials at Miami Research Associates
Almost FACT: The fact is that diets low in protein tend to be high in simple carbohydrate (a.k.a. Sugar) rich foods. Sugar drastically and quickly depletes your immune system. While your immune system does need good, quality protein to produce antibodies, it does not need sugar! Avoiding sugar will amazingly boost your ability to fight colds and flu.
“Gyms are crawling with sweaty towels, dirty sneakers and other germy grossness. Instead of sitting directly on a mat or bench, I’ll place a clean towel on it first. Any equipment that I have to touch—like free weights or bicycle handlebars— I’ll clean first with antibacterial wipes.”
—Franci Cohen, group-exercise instructor and owner of Fuel Fitness, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
FACT and FICTION: While it is a good idea limit your exposure to the nasty sweat of random strangers, antibacterial wipes are not the way to go. Research has shown that wipes, soaps and hand sanitizers with antibacterial chemicals are a major contributor to the creation of antibiotic-resistant ‘super bugs’. These chemicals also disrupt thyroid function and reproductive hormones. Using warm water and soap to wash your hands or an alcohol wipe at the gym is just as effective at killing germs. It is also safer and healthier.
Sanitize your office space
“I clean everything that gets touched by lots of people—microwaves, fax-machine keys, doorknobs, elevator buttons, the armrests on my chair—with a good disinfectant at least once a week, even if it looks clean. It’s just basic hygiene. Rhinoviruses can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours!”
—Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs
FACT and FICTION: Basic hygiene is a very important factor for general health, as well as preventing colds. However, as discussed above, be sure to avoid cleaners and wipes with health-destroying antibacterial chemicals. Additionally, colds and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria. So, killing bacteria won’t help.
Hit the bottle
“If I don’t have any hand sanitizer with me, I’ll pour a little vodka on my hands. Vodka’s high alcohol content makes it a great disinfectant.”
—Anonymous flight attendant
Fact: This is actually a much better use for vodka! As discussed already, alcohol is a much safer disinfectant that those with antibacterial chemicals. Just avoid drinking it if you are already run down.
“When I’m walking past another person and he is sneezing or coughing, I gently and slowly breathe out until I’m beyond the 6- to 10-foot zone around him. This keeps me from inhaling the air he just contaminated.”
—Dr. Stafford Broumand, a plastic surgeon in New York City
Impractical FICTION: Not only is this a difficult practice but it is also likely ineffective. Believe it or not, germs that can cause colds and flu are literally everywhere, regardless of coughing and sneezing. So, rather than waiting to exhale when passing a sneezer, focus on healthy habits that build a strong immune system. This will help you prevent colds and flu even when you are exposed to the germs.
“If I get a scratchy throat and think I might be getting a cold, I pop Cold-Eeze lozenges with zinc for a few days. They relieve symptoms and can get you better faster.”
—Dr. Marc Leavey, a primary-care physician in Lutherville, Md.
FACT: Unfortunately, most primary care doctors are far too quick to prescribe antibiotics at the first sign of colds and flu and too stingy on nutritional advice. However, Dr. Leavey is correct that zinc helps boost your immune response. As he indicated, it is most effective at the first sign of a cold.
Live by the pen
“With an immune-compromised child at home—my son got a bone-marrow transplant when he was a year old to treat Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome—I’ve become used to bringing my own pen to the bank, the grocery store, the doctor’s office. I even touch the ATM with it. That way, I avoid picking up germs I might spread to my child.”
—Kim Okochi, a mother of two in Secretary, Md.
FICTION for most: If your children have chronic or genetic conditions that make them more susceptible to infections, then you will need to take extra precautions. However, the general public does not need to avoid touch. You can’t change the fact that germs are everywhere! Not touching surfaces or other people does little to actually avoid your exposure. Instead, focus on building a strong immune system that will naturally fight bacteria and viruses.
Pamper your nose
“I do a daily nasal rinse with a bulb syringe to flush out viruses and help clear secretions. You can buy nasal saline irrigation at the drugstore—I like NeilMed Sinus Rinse—or make your own: Mix 3 teaspoons iodide-free salt and 1 teaspoon baking soda. Add 1 teaspoon of this mixture to 1 cup distilled or cooled boiled water.”
—Dr. Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska
FICTION: There is a popular, yet somewhat disgusting commercial for an anti-mucous drug that uses the hash tag #BlameMucous. But, have you ever wondered why your body even makes mucous? Mucous is actually a very important defense against colds and flu. It has powerful antibacterial and antiviral properties and it traps germs before they ever have a chance to get into your system. Don’t blame mucous, #RespectMucous!
“As a paramedic, I never know what germs I’ll be encountering. So I drink water constantly to flush toxins out through the lymph system. During cold and flu season, my EMT partner and I start our day by making and drinking juice. We’ll use kale, broccoli, apple, arugula, parsley, cucumber, carrots, Swiss chard, lemon and mint. Since I don’t get my recommended nine servings of whole fruits and vegetables every day (who does?), juicing allows me to drink that amount in concentrated form.”
—Kristina Economou, a paramedic in Monterey, Calif.
FACT: This is absolutely the best tip in the entire list! Juicing – especially these antioxidant rich superfoods – is a powerful method to fight colds, flu and even cancer!
Keep your hands to yourself
“I never use water fountains or the railings on stairs. They’ve got the prints of hundreds of germy hands (and mouths!), and they don’t get sanitized as often as other surfaces, like sinks. I’ll use my own water bottle, thank you very much!”
—Cheryl Lassiter, a kindergarten teacher in Atlanta
FACT and FICTION: I don’t care much for public water fountains either but it is impossible to avoid all germs. Carrying your own water bottle will help and is a good tip for proper hydration. However, remember to wash your bottle daily to avoid buildup of bacteria. Use immune-boosting, healthy lifestyle habits to fight colds and flu.
“I’ll use a few drops of lavender essential oil as a natural hand sanitizer on the go.”
—Dr. Frank Lipman, integrative-medicine practitioner and founder and director of Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center, in New York City
FACT: This is the second best tip on the list. Essential oils have many health benefits without the dangerous side effects of drugs. Additionally, Dr. Frank Lipman is a great resource for natural living tips.
Release bad energy
“My job is to keep patients calm in the ER, so I treat them with Jin Shin Jyutsu, a form of Japanese light-touch energy therapy. The practice unlocks blocked energy to help the body fight infection. I do it myself every morning—I put my right hand on top of my head and my left hand in between my eyebrows, and I take relaxed breaths for five minutes.”
—Julia Millspaugh, Morristown Medical Center, in Morristown, N.J.
FACT: While calming methods vary, stress and negative energy most certainly deplete your immune system. Intentional, relaxed breathing and effective stress management are important techniques to fight colds and flu.
Get what you knead
“I receive massages once a month to increase my circulation, which boosts immunity by nourishing cells with more oxygen and blood. It also makes me relaxed and less stressed, and when you’re less stressed, you’re less likely to be a germ magnet.”
—Christine Nelson, a massage therapist in Las Cruces, N.M.
FACT: Massage therapy has many wonderful health benefits beyond pain relief and relaxation.
“I run whenever and wherever I possibly can. When I travel, I try to stay in a hotel that has a dry sauna and use it every day. Sweating makes me feel like I’m getting all the toxins and germs out.”
—Mike Martinez, a city-council member in Austin, Texas
FACT: Exercise stimulates your immune system and sweating is your body’s primary method of detoxification. So, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff but do take time to sweat every day with effective, immune-boosting exercise.
“Anything I use on people’s mouths, like lip brushes, I clean more often than other tools to avoid passing germs around. I clean lipsticks with an alcohol wipe.”
—Sonia Kashuk, a makeup artist and founder of Sonia Kashuk Beauty
FACT: Use alcohol wipes as disinfectant cleaners. Avoid wipes and cleaners with dangerous antibacterial chemicals.
Call it a day
“My strategy is to double down on trying to get enough sleep, even if it’s just a power nap on a plane. Research shows that our bodies need seven to eight hours of sleep in order to stimulate an immune response from our ‘natural killer cells,’ which attack viruses. Sleep is my most reliable defense against infection.”
—Dr. David Katz, founder of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well
FACT: This a solid tip that ranks right up there with juicing every day. Missing sleep will absolutely weaken your immune system, increasing your risk of colds and flu. Aim for seven to nine hours every night.
Protect your paws
“I wash my hands often and pat them fully dry so they don’t get flaky, which can allow germs in. Then I moisturize.”
—Dr. Diane Berson, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital
FACT: This is a great tip as long as you do not use antibacterial hand soap, which actually weakens your immune system and disrupts important hormones. However, your skin is your primary defense against germs and infections – keep it healthy!
Don’t talk dirty
“As a doctor, I need to keep my cell phone with me at all times. During the day, I might place it on a counter or use it in between opening doors, pushing elevator buttons or shaking hands with patients or colleagues. Cleaning my phone with a sanitizing wipe regularly cuts back on the germs that get near my face and mouth.”
FACT (with conditions): If you have read this far, then I think you know the answer to this one. Hygiene is vital to prevent colds and flu but avoid antibacterial wipes. Opt for safer, healthier alcohol wipes instead.
Overall, this is a good list with a couple great tips. Juicing, proper sleep, effective stress management, and essential oils top the list for health promoting ways to beat colds and flu naturally. Be sure to check out How to Build a Flu Proof Immune System for more solid advice on preventing colds and flu.